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Does UCLA Care About Its Relationship With Alumni?

Royce Hall at night
Royce Hall at night

I hope you are all enjoying the holiday season.

Given the various discussions that people have had, and particularly in light of tazmiami's post regarding his conversation with the Vice Chancellor, I thought it would be a good time to share some general thoughts about UCLA and its alumni.

I think each one of us has a personal story about how the bond was created with UCLA. It is not necessarily a single moment in time, though that has happened as well. For me it was a culmination of many things, from my first UCLA football game, victories against Southern Cal, the 95 championship, making lifelong friends, and representing UCLA in athletics (even if my team was dropped from varsity!). Another kind of pride grew from having made it to UCLA, and the general respect that people have for the school and the education it provides.

I am trying to understand better, now, what my connection to UCLA is. Again, this is likely to be different for each of us. But it leads me to another question that I believe is very important: what is UCLA's connection to us, the alumni?

Let me be clear about one thing: I am eternally grateful for my UCLA education. But in all honesty, my graduate degree from another university was far more instrumental in the career that I have today. On the one hand, I don't really use my UCLA major at all in what I do today, but on the other hand, I probably would not have been admitted to my grad school without that UCLA degree. As far as I'm concerned, at UCLA I learned how to learn and think, while at my grad school I gained the skills for my career.

So I will be honest: so far, I have made more donations to my grad school than to UCLA. And it has nothing to do with sports, my grad school is in Division III. There is however a big difference in how my grad school reaches out to its alumni and how UCLA reaches out to its alumni. I regularly get invited to sit on panels, attend reunions, lectures, meetings and get to interact with other alums and students. UCLA does this to a certain degree. I get invited to Biology lectures, but obviously have little interest since it is not my field of work. How many of us work in a field related to our undergrad major anyway? But other events, such as the one Chancellor Block recently attended in San Diego, seem merely like veiled attempts at getting donations.

And that is the main difference I see: my grad school sees its alumni as assets for knowledge and networking, while UCLA constantly seems to be chasing donations. For every one email I get to be a mentor, I get 5 more and numerous phone calls for donations. It's partly understandable, as my grad school was private while UCLA is seeing vanishing financial support from the state.

But this is where UCLA fails in understanding alumni dynamics. Many of us have moved past the educational and academic connection to UCLA. What mostly remains is an emotional connection, the nostalgia of our great college life...which gets revived now during athletic events, or our kids looking at college, and not lectures about climate change. Basically what I am saying is, that's the deal: we represent UCLA in our everyday lives by being successful in our career, which helps UCLA's reputation, and by helping others get the same opportunity at UCLA. Is it too much to ask in exchange for a great athletic program? If we are telling UCLA that this is where we feel the biggest connection to the school, would it not behoove them to hear us?

Now maybe this only applies to Chianti Dan, but his last two hires have been alumni, and not just alumni of the school but alumni of the football program. I can't really say that Karl Dorrell was underpaid, since he had no previous head coaching experience. But what about Rick Neuheisel? Here's a guy who graduated from UCLA, has a law degree, has experience in coaching college football...and Chianti Dan thought that his salary should be less than his comparable peers? Why is that? Perhaps it was because Neuheisel's past transgressions had made him less marketable, which is somewhat understandable (but a bit manipulative). More importantly, I think DG took advantage of Neuheisel's passion for the school to underpay him. I would just like to know if the Dean of the School of Medicine hires UCLA alumni because he can pay them less. Somehow I doubt it.

In a way, I feel like that is what the Morgan Center has been doing to alumni. They take advantage of our love for the school to skimp on providing a good product and good facilities. They operate like the postal system in the old Eastern bloc. Hey, as long as you get the mail, pay your taxes and don't complain. Who cares if it's 3 weeks late and half ripped? We saved by having it carried by goats.

The UCLA Fund is not much better. The constant complaint is that only a small percentage of alumni donate to the school. Well why do you think that is? If you look at institutions that get a lot of alumni donations, it seems as though the outreach to alumni and continued involvement with the school is far more extensive. It is not just athletics. Alumni outreach cannot simply consist of solicitations for donations. People need to feel a continued connection to the university beyond just the reputation. That comes via guest lectures, panels, athletics, and most importantly, career networking. I may be wrong but it seems that UCLA hardly encourages alumni to recruit at the school. My grad school constantly reminds me to recruit there if possible. The Career Center was an utter joke when I was in school, I don't know how it is today.

Finally, let's just take a look at the actual donation process, if you want to do so online. The UCLA site is pretty cumbersome, if you ask me. It is also not very appealing, it looks cheap and more like a donation page from the local high school, from 10 years ago. Compare that to the donation page from the Marcedes Lewis foundation, just to pick one. It is clean and easy to navigate.

Let's do an even better comparison: here is the home page for the University of Wisconsin Foundation. I mean, look at that. Tons of information, an invitation to be part of something, and even a "Share Your Story" link. Compare that to the home page for the UCLA Fund. What do you see everywhere? Give. Why give, where to give, how to give, give give give.

Perhaps I am reading too much into this, but I think most of us are growing frustrated at the constant requests for donations from a seemingly disinterested party that does not give its alumni a proper voice. Certainly, the point of a donation is generosity and there should not be an expectation of quid pro quo. But the truth is, everyone has options, and too often UCLA comes last.